Our brain and mind in the search for happiness
We all want to be happy but do we ever consider how our brain affects our thinking and impacts our ability to be happy? Do we realise that our brain could be the reason why we feel negative even in seemingly neutral and unchallenging situations? Put simply your brain is built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news! The amygdala — the brain region that regulates emotion and motivation — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news! The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing. In order to fully appreciate why this negative bias take place it is useful to look at the way our brain has evolved.
Research over the last 50 years has shown that within our brains there is a mixed bag of strategies, desires, motives, fears and abilities. All these parts of the brain evolved to do different things and they do not always work together. Every human shares a common ancestry with all living things that goes back at least 3.5 billion years. Mammals arose about 200 million years ago and the first primates about 60 million years ago. Our own species arose about 200,000 years ago. During the rise of our species our brain has developed in 3 main stages. Its ancient and primitive part is the innermost core reptilian brain. Next evolved the mammalian brain by adding new functions and new ways of controlling the body. Then evolved the third part of the brain, the neocortex, the grey matter, the bulk of the brain in two symmetrical hemispheres, separate but communicating. To a considerable extent it is our neocortex which enables us to behave like human beings.
Whilst our modern brain has evolved so that we can rationalise information, the amygdala, the reptilian part of our brain remains very active in our every day thinking. With the need for survival in a more hostile environment the reptilian brain learnt to react more quickly to potential dangers than to more pleasurable experiences. Put quite simply both the carrot and the stick are important but if you don’t watch out for the stick today there will be no carrot tomorrow. This negative bias for survival continues to run within us today. The brain can be viewed in two different aspects namely the reactive and the responsive. The reactive brain sends warning signals to us and makes us more anxious and defensive. The responsive brain helps us relax and develop a more positive outlook. It is the responsive brain that we need to develop as this is the key to happiness.
Science has revealed that our brains contain at least 3 types of major emotion regulation systems. Each one designed for a particular purpose but also designed to work together. These systems are;
Threat and self protection system – designed to to pick up on threats quickly and then give us bursts of feelings such as anger, anxiety or disgust
Incentive and resource-seeking system – -designed to give us positive feelings that guide, motivate and encourage us to seek out resources that we will need to survive and prosper
Soothing and contentment system – designed to bring a certain soothing and peacefulness to ourselves to try to bring balance in our emotions
In everyday life our reactive brain without awareness is constantly trying to assimilate information in order to keep us safe and alive. As Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz states ‘the brain receives information from the environment, including images, verbal communications from others, emotional reactions, bodily sensations, and so on, and then processes that information in an automatic and rote way. No thought or awareness is involved (at least initially)’. The brain is reacting the best it can according to the information it receives.
As previously stated our brains have evolved a negative bias with the sole purpose of keeping us safe and alive. The good news is that you can change the way the brain reacts by using your mind. Most people may not have considered that there is any distinction in our thinking process between the brain and the mind. All experiences in life affect the brain and it forms habits it believes are crucial for our survival. Without the mind these can have profoundly negative effects on our thinking processes and our ability to be happy.
As humans we have the ability to be self-aware through our ally the mind. When we are talking about the mind we mean directed attention. The mind is involved in helping constructively focus our attention. Focusing our attention is crucial as this can change the way the brain reacts. The brain and not the mind generates the initial desires, thoughts and sensations but it is the mind that can put a halt to all of these as soon as they happen. This integration of mind and brain has three important implications. Firstly , as your brain changes, your mind changes. Secondly, as your mind changes, your brain changes. Thirdly, many of those changes are fleeting, as your brain changes moment to moment to support the movement of information. But many are lasting, as neurons wire together: structure builds in the brain.
The formation of habits
Understandably many of us feel that we are powerless in the way we think. That is because the behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways. Often these habits are negative and self-destructive. It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. Secondly there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself. Thirdly is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future. Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts. This highlights the importance of focusing our attention on how we think.
The power of attention
We have all heard that positive thinking is good for us. Neuroscience has now confirmed that how we focus our attention can have a profound effect on the way we think. Hebb’s Law states that neurons that ‘fire together wire together’. This means that when groups of nerve cells or regions of the brain are repeatedly activated at the same time form a circuit and are essentially ‘locked in’ together. Since we know that the brain remains neuroplastic for life using the mind we can consciously control how we want our brains to work. Just by repeatedly engaging in positive thinking we can eliminate negative habitual thinking patterns. One of the best ways to see habitual negative thought processes is to become aware of negative ‘self talk’ – those things that you automatically say to yourself without awareness that are not true and others may have no idea you think about yourself. It’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure. By being mindful of the negativity bias and recognizing that your brain wants to cling to these events like your life depends on it. By using your mind you can change how you think. Jeffrey Schwartz has called this ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’. As Alex Korb states ‘ we’ve all got the same brain circuits, so whether you’re depressed or anxious or out of sorts or doing just fine, you can use the same neuroscience to improve your life’.